Most people think that cotton only comes in the color white and then needs to be dyed, but in reality cotton can be grown in a variety of colors including tan, green, yellow, red, and brown.
Colored cotton agriculture began in Indo-Pakistan, Egypt, and Peru around 2700 B.C. It was the Industrial Revolution and the cotton gin that changed things. Short-fibered colored cotton was too difficult to spin when compared to long-fiber all white cotton. In the American South, slaves were forbidden from planting white cotton in their own gardens as they might sell it for profit. They were allowed to grow naturally colored cotton and spin their own clothes as hand spinning of the cotton worked well, but the fibers did not take well to the looms.
With inexpensive industrial dyes and the cotton loom, the growing of colored cotton eventually disappeared. It made a brief reappearance again during WWII when green and brown cotton plants were produced because dyes were not available. The plants were thought to yield too little lint that was too short in staple length so once again the growing of colored cotton was halted except in a handful of traditional communities in places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru.
Cotton is one of the most pesticide dependant plants in the world. Cotton farmers use approximately 23 percent of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides. Then once this cotton is grown it is then dyed with chemicals for color or flame resistant properties.
An entomologist and weaver by the name of Sally Fox began experimenting in the 80s and 90s with some naturally colored cotton seeds she had discovered. She was able to breed the plants for fibers that were stronger than the original plants she discovered thus allowing naturally colored cotton to be mechanically spun. She called her strong long-fibered colored cotton Fox Fibre. She has bred for color and even discovered that some varieties have natural fire resistance. The idea of producing safe cotton for children’s sleepwear that would otherwise be soaked in chemicals drove her to pursue this discovery. She received a utility patent for the flame resistant properties she bred in her Coyote and Buffalo Fox Fibre. She now has six distinct shades: Coyote and New Brown, both of which are reddish browns, milk-chocolate-colored Buffalo, sage-colored Palo Verde, Green Fox Fibre, and a dark forest New Green.
Recently consumers and manufacturers have been turning to organic cotton producers. In 1988 there was only one acre of organically grown cotton in America. By 2001, there were more than 11,000 acres and now the number is a little under 5,000 as competition from growers around the world has increased. Not only is colored cotton easier to grow organically as it is more pest resistant than white cotton, but it does not require any bleach or dyes during processing. There are many revival efforts in various countries to bring back native cotton spinning and weaving techniques as well. Organic, naturally colored cotton is definitely something to keep an eye out for.
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